As I was obsessing about sweet Arthur Fleck and super-hot Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, like many others, I started following online all of those thousand social media groups posting a thousand pictures per day of this gorgeous man and his bold performance in the last Todd Phillips’ movie.
Aside from the fact that my computer and my phone are now packed with Phoenix’s starry green eyes as if I were a dreamy teenager again, I was remarkably impressed by the huge number of fan-artworks that keeps popping up almost every minute on Instagram and Facebook, the official and unofficial online marketplaces, the many pictures of people of all ages and genders pretending to be him and tracing his attitude: just anything to be part of that experience, of that art-history-in-the-making. Whatever it is, there is no doubt that the powerful iconography of the movie struck the whole audience worldwide. As a visual artist myself, my initial drive as well was to chew, digest and give back a personal reassembled version of that overwhelming, devastating rendezvous I had at the theater. But as an art historian and iconographer, I’d rather step back and consider the huge contribution Joker provides to the visual arts under a different angle.
Back in 1861, the poet Flaubert wrote: “Artists [writers] are never free to write this or that. They can’t just pick up any subject. Here’s what audience and critics never get: the secret of a masterpiece lies in the accordance between the subject and the author’s temper.”
In other words, subjects and figurations are not a fact, they are always a matter. Precisely, for an artist, they are a matter of choice and not-chosen: the content is always – and can be none other than that content in that form, in which it’s dropped and melted. We use to absentmindedly accept that the figural matter matches with the content since it actually represents the visible part of each creation, but it’s not that simple. Here’s an eloquent example: in religious art the content is always the same – Stories of the Bible, Life of Jesus, Passion of Christ, Holy Virgin and Child. But all those categories per se say nothing about artworks and their figurative clues: to assign a value to an art-piece, we can only consider the specific alteration and the interpretation that the subject received from the artist. This negotiation happens, and it could not be otherwise, between the content’s proper requirements and the formal investment made by the artist. More simply, when creating, the artist reduces, transforms, deforms, divides, adapts a subject–which is always the same in its conceptual statement–and achieves it in constantly renewed styles and terms. These terms cannot be shared by or be common to other artists.
Here’s what happened with Todd Phillips’ Joker, and here’s the reason why it has somehow very little to do with the comics world. Besides recalling vintage vibes and supreme timeless cinema masterpieces from Kubrick to Scorsese, among other things, Phillips and his staff were able to design a meaningful new set of visually satisfying icons, including color palettes, postures and piercing facial expressions. It is great to investigate the plot and its many declinations, but let’s stay focused on the form and imagine Phillips as a painter striking his brush gently here and crudely there, defining the soaked hair of the defeated clown under the rain one by one, stretching the anatomy of a forced smile at its most. Arthur’s stunning dancing wait behind the curtains at Murray Franklin’s, with its mounting pathos, is possibly the climax of Joker’s emergence. The definition of this myth involves an iconography where a suit, a makeup, a gesture are captured eternally in the magic though erudite process of creation. It came out of Phillips’s own cultural layering as a person, a boy, a man, a student, a lover, a practitioner, a professional.
On the other hand, I believe one of the reasons why Phoenix’s performance is unanimously perceived as sublime is that most of all his (gorgeous) mastering acting face allowed him to so openly and unfailingly encompass the widest range of human emotions currently known. That’s why it struck us right in the flesh: smiles, sadness, disillusion. I love to call this set of expressions Pathosformels, what iconologist Aby Warburglike calls “the rules of pathos”, an evocative oxymoron merging the dynamism of drama/Pathos and the rigidity of the formula/scheme. Pathosformel is a gesture at its superlative degree, an iconographic pattern whose consistent meaning has been acknowledged within a cultural code, an impressed mark always easy to be read and identified. I am referring to the universally known gestures/expressions of sorrow and death: the progressive dynamism of sorrow, moving from the sadness of melancholy to the vehemence of despair, finally going back to a silent withdraw. I am talking about the overcoming rage exploding into action, still endangered by fear and dismay. This is shown in Arthur’s and Joker’s eloquent body and face, starting from the chiaroscuro effect of his pathologic laughing, and not by chance finding its supreme materialization in the evolving gestures of dance: Arthur’s way of seeking for harmony. His performance has such a strong and clear symbolism to be directly received by anyone, no matter their background, and this is one of the reasons why the character caused so much affection and devotion. And this is when Art fully achieves its goal: when it has no need to be paraphrased.
I believe that from a multi-sensory perspective, the detouring towards an Arthur-Holic self, many of us have experienced while driving to theaters for the tenth or twelfth time, actually meets a crucial need of our times. It is not just empathy towards a character; it’s not just curiosity for a multi-layered plot; it is not just the attraction to a brilliant soundtrack, nor the simple thirst for beauty–it is not even Phoenix’s unparalleled sex-appeal. I believe it’s the urge to being fully loaded with quality.
We are getting used to such a low-level cultural environment, there’s so much neglect, approximation and complacency in what we see, hear and do. Education is cutting short on almost everything; the urgencies of everyday life are trying to make us believe that the common people are the new heroes. We just pretend it’s okay anyway, that lost our reverence towards the great masters from the past. We do no longer reach for the stars but just look for the most graceless “make-a-living.” We no longer talk to each other, we take selfies as if we don’t realize that we are taking our own pictures because we are alone–and for many of us they are even masterpieces.
But then, all of a sudden, ART barges into an ordinary autumn day with violence and power, we don’t realize why, but still, we are able to instinctively recognize in it the great beauty, quality, skill, erudition, talent, harmony, meaning, effort, coordination and thickness. Each of us will later try to understand what this Joker has represented for themselves, but there’s something at the pit of our stomachs that screams out so loud in admiration of Phillips’ achievement: it’s the need for quality for any assigned task we are expected to sort out in our lives. It’s the aim of being the creator of such a masterpiece ourselves. It’s the clear understanding that everyone involved in the making of the movie worked at the top of their skills, mastering their specific fields of knowledge and creating an extraordinary harmony of purposes.
When a powerful masterpiece floods us all artists–actors, professionals, students or young people with such an inspiration, we all want to swallow that stuff and edit it our own way in order to somehow fill up our souls with all that greatness, we should rather remember it’s still someone else’s art, not ours! It’s Phoenix who created the icon, it’s Phillips who decided for that. Nevertheless, it’s still ours in a different way: that very way that the Sistine Chapel is ours and so is all the art all over the world. Sometimes someone creates milestones for us to move forward, and it doesn’t happen by chance, but with hard, hard work and precise preparation. Sure thing Michelangelo spent years and years copying the great masterpieces of Ancient Greek and Roman art treasured in Rome and Florence, however we don’t remember him for any of those graceful copies, but for the unparalleled, original results he achieved personally by reworking his sources. Unfortunately, the selfie era is exceptionally crystallized in the cosplayers poses: they can be funny and accurate, but so markedly self-referential and dedicated to an audience of infertile contemplators.
I am excited to realize Joker will represent a great inspiration for artists, as they will study and practice on Phillips’ and Phoenix’s patterns in many fields of art. Nevertheless, our goal as artists should always be to master a technique in order to be able to confidently express exactly what we need to, in that very own way that will be ours. Technique is essential as it sets us free to control the way we stand out. Content is essential as it can draw up our own message in the most effective way. Let the story of any Joker be the subject we’ll be tapping into, but then allow our creative fury to shape it our own way. We don’t need to own icons, we must aim to create new ones, to leave our own mark. Here is what to be thankful to Joker and the mesmerizing work of Todd Phillips, Joaquin Phoenix and all of the staff for: the gift of an unexpected urge to improve ourselves as individuals and professionals. Indeed this is what true art is meant to achieve, no need to explain it further: pushing boundaries.
Francesca Robicci an Art Historian and Museologist with a strong background in Art History, Literature and Contemporary History. She has a consistent management career in Museums and Galleries in addition to a successful artistic experience as a designer and interior decorator, specializing in classical painting and frescoes (www.literarypaintings.com).